Flying Straight into Trouble

UPDATED 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

Around and around and down, down, down drifted the powerless plane, like a dead leaf in autumn. The four-seat Cessna had set out from Washington's National Airport at 6:33 A.M. on what should have been an hour-and-a-quarter flight to Rocky Mount, N.C. But two hours later, as he belatedly passed by Rocky Mount the pilot had radioed that he was having difficulty breathing. After that, he stopped responding to radio messages. And for four hours he sat nearly motionless as the plane, on autopilot, carried him more than 500 miles out over the Atlantic until it ran out of gas off the Bahamian island of Eleuthera.

The Air Force parajumper team that had been trailing him in an HC-130 rescue plane knew that the disabled flier's chances were nil: From 10,000 feet up the ocean looks like linoleum and is just about as soft on impact When the Cessna struck the water, "It dug in its left wing and then the cockpit hit" says Maj. Dave Yoak, co-pilot of the HC-130. "When it came to a stop, the cockpit was under water, with the tail sticking up in the air. It was a violent crash."

The plane sank within eight minutes. But then rescuers spotted the pilot struggling in the waves; they dropped him a raft and parachuted to his aid. Medic Paul Hayden was the first to reach him. "Hey, how are you doing?" Hayden inquired. "Have you got any injuries?"

The man gasped that he had pain in his abdomen, that he had trouble breathing, that his name was Thomas Root In the raft Staff Sgt Scott Tracy dressed Root's nasty abdominal wound; the medics figured he had been pierced by the Cessna's steering column. "He was confused. He didn't know where he was or who we were," says Staff Sgt Paul Miller. "He said he had a million questions, but that he didn't think this was the right time to ask."

He had a million questions! In the days that followed, all the inquiries were directed back at Root who made a quick transition from miracle survivor to mystery man. As if his long, meandering flight to nowhere weren't weird enough, emergency room staffers at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., where Root was taken, found a bullet wound in his abdomen. Then came disclosures of complex legal and professional and perhaps even criminal problems. It all added up to the stuff that detective tales are made of.

According to Hollywood Police Chief Richard Witt, the bullet had entered two inches above and slightly to the right of Root's navel, run through the coils of his intestine in eight places, emerged through the left rib cage and wounded his left arm. "Powder burns indicate that this was a contact wound," Witt added "The gun was either held against or very close to the body."

National Airport ground personnel said Root had seemed fine when he climbed into the Cessna, and neither they nor the pursuit pilots had observed anyone else on the craft. Radar records suggest that Root had not landed anywhere en route. It seemed that Root had shot himself aboard the plane.

From his hospital bed, the 36-year-old lawyer denied the charge. He said he had been flying from Washington to Rocky Mount to take a deposition, when he developed breathing trouble and remembered nothing else until he hit the water. Root jokingly suggested he would tell a supermarket tabloid that "I was hit by a UFO driven by Elvis and Jackie O." The only serious explanation he could muster was that the Smith & Wesson .32 revolver he kept in his plane's glove compartment must have fired accidentally when the plane crashed. "It's the best theory I've got" he said

The UFO story might be more plausible. Experts said it would have been virtually impossible for the revolver to fire without a pull on the trigger. And in order to leave the powder burns, the gun would have had to make its way out of the glove compartment to within inches of Root's skin. Tests showed Root had not suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, as some had speculated. And military pilots who had followed him revealed that Root had apparently not in fact been unconscious from the time he passed Rocky Mount: He had repeatedly turned as though to look at the pursuing planes, and the Cessna's sun visor was moved at least three times.

At this point, Root's perforated gut and sunken plane are just part of his troubles. The U.S. Customs Service has him under investigation, possibly for drug running. Clients have pressed at least two complaints against him before the District of Columbia Bar Association. The FCC has rebuked him for repeatedly missing filing deadlines and skipping fact-finding hearings regarding radio station licenses. And he has been closely linked with Sonrise Management Services, Inc., a Georgia-based company that is under investigation in several states for possible securities fraud—a charge it denies.

Sonrise would solicit small investors interested in obtaining licenses for radio stations—many of them Christian stations—offering to take care of the bureaucratic red tape. In the past four years, Sonrise took in about $14 million. But since 1986, according to Root, the company won only four or five licenses for its clients. Root, who represented Sonrise's partnerships, apparently had more work than he could handle. Many applications were turned down because his filings were faulty or too late; others he withdrew himself. The publicity after his splashdown may only have made Root's troubles worse. Asked facetiously if anyone at Sonrise might have taken a shot at Root, one employee, annoyed at the unwelcome media attention, replied, "No, but I'd like to get my hands around his throat and strangle him."

Though there are conflicting reports of how much Root's firm made for this work—one account places the figure at $25,000 per application—a Washington communications attorney says Root made "a foolish deal" with Sonrise and was strapped for cash. Says the lawyer: "That man was Trouble with a capital T." Just a day or two before his famous flight, Root left an urgent message with an attorney reminding him to file documents that would ensure payment of $50,000 due to his wife, Kathy, as a result of a business deal. "My thoughts were that he wanted his wife provided for," says the lawyer. A pressing need for funds—in June, Root's plane was temporarily repossessed—might help explain any possible involvement in drug dealing.

On April 24, Virginia authorities, acting on a tip, searched the hangar Root leased at the Manassas airport and found 28 weapons, including assorted handguns, two assault rifles and an unregistered, fully automatic MAC-11 machine gun equipped with a silencer. They also found a five-gallon can of ether, which is sometimes used in the processing of cocaine. Root explained that he is a gun collector and that he bought the ether to clean oil off his plane. But highly sophisticated electronic navigation equipment and chemical light sticks of the sort drug smugglers use to mark drops were also found in the hangar. Root has denied any involvement in drugs or drug trafficking. But as his own father, Thomas, concedes, "You couldn't write a scenario that looks any more suspicious."

The son of a Plymouth, Ohio, tile-factory owner, Thomas L. Root was voted "most trustworthy" in his class at the Howe Military School in Indiana. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1974 after just three years and earned a law degree and a master's degree in journalism at Ohio State in 1977. To the other residents of Rutland Place in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va., where the Roots live in a modest but meticulously maintained four-bedroom split-level, Thomas and Kathy were the ideal couple next door—"open, friendly Mid-westerners," as one neighbor put it. The Roots regularly attended Fairlington United Methodist Church. Thomas cheerfully ran errands for the elderly in his pickup truck, invited the whole neighborhood over for Fourth of July and Christmas parties and let everybody use his swimming pool, the only one on the block. The Roots' three children, T.J., 7, Leslie, 4, and Travis, 1½, seemed happy and well-adjusted.

The most violent thing anyone can remember Thomas Root doing was shooting a snake in his backyard, and then he said he felt bad and hoped the reptile went to "snake heaven." His only unlawful act, so far as neighbors knew, was dropping firecrackers into the storm sewers on the Fourth. "I know it's illegal," he said, "but it doesn't hurt anybody."

"They're the perfect American family," says next-door neighbor Eugene Livesay. "There must be some logical explanation to all of this."

Perhaps there is. As Kathy Root observed at Thomas's hospital, "Truth is stranger than fiction." However her husband's flight is eventually accounted for, that judgment is likely to stand.

—James S. Kunen, Meg Grant in Miami, Ira Allen, Marilyn Balamaci in Washington, Elizabeth Velez in Alexandria

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